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Ranking the States on Pre-K

This morning, the National Institute for Early Education Research released their annual "State of Preschool" Yearbook. The Yearbook is the best source of information out there right now on the size, spending, and quality of state pre-k programs. We've been waiting to get our hands on this year's, because with the rate at which states are expanding and changing state pre-k programs, we knew last year's report was already out of date. The report released today includes data for the 2006-07 school year.

NIEER ranks states on pre-k access (the 38 states with pre-k programs receive a rank of 1-38), per-pupil pre-k funding (again, a 1-38 rank), and quality (a 1-10 ranking based on the number of NIEER quality standards the state's pre-k program meets). These rankings get the most press and public attention, because everyone loves a horserace among states, but the more valuable information is actually in the detailed tables at the back of the report, which contain a wealth of information on issues such as: How many hours of education do state pre-k programs provide to children? How does the state monitor program quality? What are the age cut-offs for pre-k enrollment? And so on. In the coming weeks, Early Ed Watch will be taking a closer look at some of those tables--look for our analysis here.

This year's report contains lots of good news, as well as some troubling information. State pre-k enrollment again rose in the 2006-07 school year. State pre-k programs now serve about 22% of 4-year-olds nationally, over one million students, and have surpassed the federal Head Start program as the largest source of public pre-k funding. States also expanded the number of 3-year-olds they serve in pre-k, but still serve less than 3% of 3-year-olds. The other big piece of good news is that state per-pupil spending on pre-k rose last year, for the first time since NIEER began counting in 2002. Over the past several years, states have been cutting the amount they spend on per pupil for pre-k, trading off spending and, in too many cases quality, in favor of increased pre-k enrollment. That this trend appears to have reversed is positive news.

The bad news is that too many children live in states with very low pre-k quality standards: More than a quarter of American 4-year-olds live in four large states with very low pre-k quality standards: California, Texas, Florida, and Ohio. California and Ohio also serve very few children in their pre-k programs: 5% and 1.3%, respectively. So while many states are making progress in improving pre-k access and quality, a large percentage of the nation's children are being left behind.

NIEER has also made two important additions to the Yearbook this year. First, it's made an effort to include local, as well as state, pre-k funding in its per-pupil spending calculations. This is important because several states expect local school districts or communities to foot part of the bill for pre-k--as they already do for K-12 education--so reports that include only state pre-k spending and not local dollars provide a skewed picture of quality and spending for some states. Maryland, for instance, ranks 27th among the states in state per-pupil pre-k spending, but 13th after local resources are factored in. NIEER is reporting both rankings to allow readers to compare with previous years, which included only state spending.

Second, NIEER has taken a page from the K-12 school finance world and attempted to judge whether the resources states and local sources provide for pre-k are adequate to pay for a high-quality pre-k program. The results aren't pretty: Of 38 states with state pre-k investments, only 19--just half--provide sufficient resoruces to offer a high-quality pre-k program. That's disconcerting news indeed.

NIEER's report shows that states are making progress on expanding access to high-quality pre-k--but they still have a very long way to go. And, as the economic downturn and housing market collapse have more and more states facing budget crunches, advocates and pro-pre-k policymakers are going to have their work cut out for them maintaining current pre-k spending and service levels, let alone improving quality and access.

In response to this situation, NIEER offers a great recommendation: States should link pre-k funding to state school funding formulas, in order to provide greater stability in state per-pupil pre-k funding and protect it in economic downturns. We've previously argued that states should use school funding formulas to finance large-scale pre-k investments, and we're glad to see NIEER getting on board with this idea.

The NIEER State Preschool Yearbook isn't perfect: Its quality indicators measure whether or not the state policy environment puts in place the preconditions for quality pre-k--but it doesn't look at the actual quality of state pre-k programs, or their results for kids. And that's what we ultimately want to know. Nevertheless, NIEER provides an exhaustive and incredibly valuable information resource on state pre-k programs for policymakers, wonks, advocates, and the media. And they're continuing to improve that resource with additional indicators. They deserve credit for yet another job well done.

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